Kaija Saariaho, Maa
Friday September 24, Miller Theatre
Columbia University, New York, NY

I usually use the infinitely better-when-pronounced-out-loud adjective “meh” to describe feelings of indifference and generally middle of the road opinions. Maybe that’s not a fair assessment of Maa, Kaija Saariaho’s fully staged ballet that was performed for only the second time ever this past week at the Miller Theatre, and which I was totally stoked to see live. Musically, I was pleased, although not blown away. But as a total artistic experience, it just didn’t work for me.

Which is certainly not to say there there weren’t aspects I liked. Musically, the piece (scored for flute, violin, viola, cello, harp, harpsichord, and percussion) was excellent, typical Saariaho – meaning that the dance is what didn’t gel for me, but more on that later. Saariaho’s music explores timbres and textures as its main musical components, with melody coming in behind that and finally rhythm and harmony as her most backgrounded musical aspects. Still, despite a de-emphasis on melody and harmony, Saariaho’s music uses building textures, timbres, and dynamics to give her music a sense of movement, teleology, drama, and excitement. As the opening few minutes of “…a la fumée” show, this music has the ability to slam itself into mini peaks and climaxes without harmonic changes or a strong rhythmic push.

Basically, that’s my way of saying that Maa sounded as I expected it to. Her brilliant use of timbres melting into each other was in full effect, as in this moment from the beginning of the fourth movement, when a repeated rhythmic ostinato began in the percussion, seemed to morph into harpsichord, and eventually moved through harp and landed in the plucked highest register of the cello.

But the music seemed to lack some of the overarching drama that characterized the works I heard last year. The seven movements of Maa constantly seemed to be building towards something that was never fully achieved, musicus interruptus if you will. That short excerpt above was one of the few parts of the score that dealt with explicit rhythmic kinetics, actually pushing the music somewhere. The harmonic stasis that characterizes much of Saariaho’s music seemed to pervade a little too deeply in Maa, grounding the entire piece in a general inertia. A little rhythm would have gone a long way in making this music really take off.

There were moments that did IT, of course, getting very close to the sublime that Saariaho often does achieve. The seventh movement began with an earth-shattering chord that seemed to reverberate long beyond the normal capabilities of only seven instruments. I wish I had a clip of this, but it sounded a lot like the opening to Saariaho’s contemporaneous “Du Cristal”:

More of those chords, with powerful crashes of the vibraphone and amplified treble instruments, closed out the piece, announcing the dancers’ exits like a death toll.

The movements for solo instruments were particularly successful, in part because they explore all the timbral possibilities of a single instrument while still depending on a sense of melody and line. That wonderful French “grande ligne” that Boulanger always wrote so affectionately of was evident in the third movement, subtitled “Door” and making extensive use of electronics. Violinist Erik Carlson’s scratching of the strings was made even more intense with echo, reverb, and digital delay, while the same effects seemed to give his lyrical motifs a beautiful, eerie quality that still sounded so foreign from the cantabile violin phrasing of Romantic ideology.

Electronics gave the sixth movement, “Fall,” a wonderfully watery quality, as the electronically processed sounds of the solo harp generated a combination of icy threads creeping across a lake and large drops of rain rippling through. The ostinato in the highest register of the instrument became a wash of crystalline sound as it was repeated and modified by the electronics, like the Northern Lights creeping across the sky, while the lower pitches reverberated as globs of oily sound on the watery canvas. Have I exhausted the aquatic metaphors? Probably…take a listen to this movement and see for yourself:
The glissandi at around 4:40 on that video were even better live, with a much faster stroke on the gliss and a more enunciated digital delay, so that each gliss was like an echoed scream in the otherwise gentle, but eerie, texture.

And although there was no solo flute movement, it often felt that flutist Claire Chase was the featured soloist, an effect bordering on the extreme when she stood on a pedestal, back to the audience, to play/conduct the seventh movement with dancers all around her in their disjointed movements. The visual aspect only did so much; her playing did the rest. Chase was the featured soloist in the performance of Terrestre last year, Saariaho’s flute concerto, which you can hear here: The same virtuosic vocalizations that pervade the flute playing in that work came out in Maa, with Chase’s exaggerated head and flute movements reinforcing the bizarre but captivating bits of human sound, processed through the flute, processed through electronics (my friend, a flutist with whom I attended Friday night, thought Chase’s movements were overkill).

So the music, while not quite the overload to my frontal lobes that I was hoping for, was nonetheless quite fine, sometimes perfectly breathtaking. The dance, while accomplished and technically impressive, just didn’t work for me. I’m no dance critic, but everything felt a little too disjointed, too much back, torso, and hip movements. At times, I felt like I was watching particularly accomplished hippie grinders, gyrating their bodies to the lysergic jamming in their heads: It honestly looked like that at times.

Not to take anything away from them, because these were very skilled dancers. Certain poses, such as acrobatics where a female dancer was suspended, in a contorted pose, by the feet of a male dancer lying on his back, were tremendous. And the constant sliding around on floor, aided by socks a la Tom Cruise in “Risky Business,” was cool. But for the most part, the dancing was so monotonous that it just got boring, to the point where my wife decided she would rather be at home cuddling our dog than watching another half hour of gyrations and slides. Alastair Macaulay, the NY Times dance critic (not music critic), reviewed the piece, noting

…I found myself concentrating on Ms. Saariaho’s score as a refuge from the tediously polished artfulness of Luca Veggetti’s choreography.

A “refuge” is right. He also pointed out something that I didn’t realize during or after the performance:

It’s all admirable but irksomely self-conscious and contrived. Look at how beautifully we do these movements! Could we demonstrate our accomplishment better?

Having now read the words of someone infinitely more knowledgeable about dance than I, it makes me see partially one of the reasons I found this dancing so uninspired but technically sound. It just didn’t speak to me. Nor, I doubt, to anyone else.

The fact that Saariaho excerpted all but one of the instrumental movements as its own concert piece speaks volumes about the work as it was originally conceived – perhaps she realized that Maa was just not as good as the sum of its parts. I’ve heard that her work isn’t averse to mixed media – I hear nothing but acclaim for her opera L’amour de loin, and this clip, with visuals designed by her husband, clearly shows that her music is well suited to visual interpretation: The composer herself seemed to know that the music of Maa posed an insurmountable challenge to any choreographer, and would be better served to be interpreted on its own.


~ by Jake on September 27, 2010.

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